Federal executives will build on Recovery Act successes, report says

By Eric Katz

June 13, 2012

Many federal agencies will keep good habits they developed while spending stimulus money during the past three years, according to a new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

In reviewing nine stimulus-funded programs, the IBM analysts identified a series of new and updated practices, including establishing special task forces, increasing oversight and encouraging interagency communication.

The decision to set tight deadlines while maintaining transparency, the authors said, was a driving force behind successful implementation of stimulus programs.

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act required that 70 percent of the original $787 billion in stimulus funding -- the total has since climbed to $840 billion -- be spent within 17 months on tax benefits; grants, loans and contracts; and entitlements. The bill passed in the first month of the Obama administration in 2009, leaving the burden of implementation to  career executives, as few political appointees were in place by that time. Spending will continue to be monitored and regulated until Sept. 30, 2013.

Many agencies created specific task forces whose sole responsibilities were to implement the Recovery Act funds. For example, the law required the Public Building Service to spend $5 billion by September 2010, marking a 400 percent increase in the office’s annual budget. The report stated the PBS task force was critical to bringing together regional offices and in determining how to allocate funds quickly and accountably.

As a central hub, Vice President Joe Biden created the Recovery Implementation Office, which held semiweekly calls with various agencies. This interagency communication encouraged the various task forces to discuss similar problems and solutions, according to the report.

The report also found that many agencies will continue to follow tighter deadlines to replicate the sense of urgency created by the Recovery Act. The deadlines forced federal executives to develop creative solutions and new ideas, as traditional structures could not have accommodated the fast-paced timeline written into the bill.

New technologies implemented by various agencies also could play a vital role in the future, the report suggested. For example, the Veterans Affairs Department used new tracking codes to monitor stimulus money. Progress was then publicized throughout the department, creating competition among federal employees that led to increased efficiency. The report pointed to Recovery.gov as a blueprint for future transparency efforts to allow the public to monitor federal spending in detail.

The report also suggested these tracking measures allowed federal executives to identify problems as they were happening, enabling fixes to be implemented immediately as opposed to post hoc changes suitable only for future endeavors.

The authors expect these strategies to continue to affect the daily routines of federal agencies, long after the stimulus funds have dried up.

“The application of these lessons in future arenas,” they wrote, “might become one of highest yielding investments made under the Recovery Act.”

By Eric Katz

June 13, 2012